By Cheryl Conway
It’s all about partnerships at Spectrum Works in Secaucus.
A non-profit company, Spectrum Works has teamed up with a for-profit company while the student employees gain skills by working alongside a mentor or coach.
The strategy has so far been a success. The pilot program that started almost three years ago recently ended and is growing to include a partnership with a another for-profit company- a large international distribution company also in Secaucus- with talks to expand with a third company in NJ. The goal is to eventually branch out into New York and then around the country.
“They [Spectrum] are branching out into other partner companies,” says Ann Marie Sullivan of Wayne, chief executive officer and founder of Spectrum Works. The mission of Spectrum Works is to give employment opportunities to individuals with autism.
Sullivan had been working as a for-profit entrepreneur with publishing companies in Europe when she stumbled across a working environment that put some things in a different perspective.
“I wanted to do something entrepreneurial” but with a “non-profit social enterprise,” she explains.
“I was volunteering as a non-profit consultant in New York City,” she explains. “We were asked by an organization in New York to evaluate a program. I was asked to come in to make it better.” When she walked in the door of a building in NY, she noticed a small screen printing company with employees faced with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
“I didn’t have any association with anyone with different abilities,” she admits, so seeing such a productive group caught her attention. “They were productive and talking like any other environment or business. It was a special place.”
When Sullivan found out that this business was going to shut down, she realized that the concept of providing job opportunities for individuals that face challenges “could be larger.”
She thought, “What could we do; what model could we put in place? What vision can we change; changing the perception of people; not only the awareness but the understanding of that?”
Sullivan decided that people with autism need greater support in the work place.
“Everybody knows someone with autism,” says Sullivan. “I don’t have any connection,” she adds, but the statistics are troubling.
According to research, 500,000 people with autism are scheduled to graduate from high school in the next 10 years throughout the U.S. Also, NJ has the highest number of individuals with autism in the U.S., with a 12 percent increase in NJ for kids with autism. Statistics reveal that one in 68 individuals in the U.S. have autism, in which one out of 42 is boys.
Out of those individuals with autism, 80 percent are unemployed, she cites.
It is encouraged that students with autism stay in high school until they are 21 “so they can learn more things and stay in programs for development,” says Sullivan.
Some question, “can people with autism work in a competitive environment? Answer is ‘no’,” says Sullivan. “There’s nothing really out there for them. We believe it is possible.”
Her idea was to have individuals with autism work alongside those in competitive employment, a term used by government which means people who are neuro-typical or without autism, she explains.
“How can we create a supportive environment for individuals to work in competitive employment?” she challenged. “Idea is to make them independent.” By working alongside a mentor or coach, “they will become more independent.
“We encourage integrated employment,” she says. “They have potential and can work. They have average or higher than average IQ’s. They just need opportunities.”
Sullivan was going to start her own manufacturing company so decided to visit Green Distribution, a for-profit screen printing, company to get some ideas and see its machinery.
“When I met the owner [Robert Butters] and I told him what we were going to do, he said ‘Why don’t you partner with us?’”
An opportunity she could not refuse, Sullivan began her company, Spectrum Works, which stems from autism spectrum disorders. She started out as a pilot program almost three years ago, in August 2013.
“This organization is unique,” says Sullivan. “We partner with for-profit companies. Students who attend high school come to work at the business with all arrangements made through their school including selection approval and transportation, she says.
For the pilot program, Spectrum Works partnered with Green Distribution from 2013 to 2015; since that ended, she has continued the partnership and even Green has hired some of her interns to join his workforce, she says.
Spectrum Works helps to manufacture custom printed screen apparel. Students have been involved with helping to print 65,000 t-shirts a day, as well as other promotional items through a distributor such as water bottles, pens, polo shirts, sweatshirts.
“It’s a very large factory,” says Sullivan. Many of the orders are universal music t-shirts; other orders have been for Shoprite, towns, recreation programs and some corporate deals.
Students get paid a salary, minimum wage, to work alongside people without autism who serve as coaches. The environment has been helping the employees who have autism “to be prepared for the work experience,” says Sullivan.
“We partner with high schools in five counties in NJ,” she says.
Schools handle transportation in getting the students to the one large facility in Secaucus, with some coming as far as Short Hills and Millburn. Spectrum is now in the process of expanding and adding a second facility, but Sullivan said it was too soon to reveal the for-profit company name.
Currently, 40 students are involved in the internship program. Employees must be at least 16 years; most work three days a week, four hours a day-typically 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.- and are involved in manual labor to office work.
“They are part of the production team,” says Sullivan. Some work tasks include after-screen printing like putting tags on, bagging, making and filling boxes, sorting sizes, putting orders together by finding, folding and packing.
Work is done in an assembly line. There are also administrative tasks, graphic design, creating spreadsheets on database, making packing lists.
“We find out what they are interested in and gear them toward that,” she says.
The partnership works as “we fund ourselves out of the product at a competitive price.”
Companies can support the program and help young adults with autism by placing orders for t-shirts and other items through Spectrum Works. So far 80 companies have placed orders throughout the tri-state area, says Sullivan.
Sponsoring fundraisers is another option to help fund the program. Mission Fitness in Livingston raised $10,000 in its April fundraiser with its cross-fit gym to support Spectrum.
Sullivan plans to look into some grants and plans to start a crowd-raising campaign with Rutgers in the near future.
Spectrum’s program for students extends into the summer as it also employs college students and other employees. Sullivan says they will be adding courses as well such as job writing skills, interview strategies and resume building.
Enrollment is continuous. Students can contact their high school now for consideration into next school year’s program.